A 2021 Mars Expedition Sounds Exciting but Does It Make Sense?

Commentary by Michael Mackowski

About a year ago, Dennis Tito formed an foundation, Inspiration Mars, whose goal was to send a married couple on a fly-by space mission to Mars and back. This would have to be launched in 2018 to take advantage of the relative alignments of the Earth and Mars. There are obvious challenges to overcome to make this successful, notably funding and the lack of demonstrated life support systems that can last 500 days with no resupply. A few months ago, Tito testified before Congress, noting that he would need the help of NASA to pull off this mission, specifically calling out the need for a heavy launch vehicle like the Space Launch System (SLS), which is now in development.

Now a some members of Congress (specifically Rep. Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee) is proposing a very similar mission but sponsored by NASA. Note that the idea did not originate with NASA.  This would be launched in 2021 and takes advantage of a Venus fly-by for a gravity assist, and results in a mission only a month or so longer than the 2018 plan by Inspiration Mars. It would be the second launch of the SLS and the inaugural flight of the Orion deep-space vehicle. This plan, as well as the Inspiration Mars plan, requires a habitat module which does not exist today, although could be based on American or Russian modules used on the International Space Station. The 2021 launch date provides a bit more realistic schedule to develop some of the missing pieces for such an audacious mission compared to the Inspiration Mars plan.

But does this 2021 plan make any sense?  Does it lead to the permanent settlement of space, or is it part of a long term strategy of human exploration of deep space, or will it leave us with any new capabilities that could be used to develop lunar resources or advance the date of putting people on the surface of Mars? My initial thought is no, it does none of these very well, but there may still be a reason to embrace it (which I’ll get to in a bit).

For establishing a solid foothold on the Moon, we will need landers and equipment to process the local regolith to extract resources. Any deep space mission, be it to the Moon, an asteroid, or Mars, needs to be part of a long term strategic plan to establish mankind’s permanent presence on other solar system bodies. This mission doesn’t address those needs. For putting a crew on the surface of Mars, we need landers (again) and long-lived life support equipment. Both the new proposal and the Inspiration Mars concept will need a reliable closed life support system, so either of these would be a step in that direction. Ideally, one would like to develop that technology and test it in low Earth orbit or in cislunar space, where a rescue or recovery would be possible should something go wrong. I have not seen a detailed development plan for these missions, so perhaps they are including that. But if that is the case, what value added is the cost of this fly-by mission provide you since you already have developed one of the technologies needed for a Mars landing mission? This is where we get to the “other” reason this mission may make sense.

Is a Venus and Mars human fly-by mission valuable from a gee-whiz perspective that might just incite an increased demand for missions that would actually lead to permanent settlements? We have been looking for something for the public to get excited about. Could this be it? The Inspiration Mars folks admitted this from the start, so is Congress picking up on that approach?  Or are they just looking for an entertaining space spectacular (it might be a great television reality series) to justify the existence of their giant SLS rocket?

While a fly-by mission with a crew generates no science results that a robotic probe couldn’t provide at a much lower cost, and doesn’t really put footprints on Mars, and leaves no real infrastructure for future long-term development, the impact of actually going to Mars may generate intangible benefits that are difficult to imagine at this time.

Such a mission would indeed be a real interplanetary expedition. There is something to be said for that. It may not have any great scientific justification, but it could have a big impact on society at a more fundamental level. Is this the “statement” mission that underscores (regains, for some) America’s leadership in space that a lot of people have been calling for?

This doesn’t have to be a terribly expensive mission. The SLS is happening anyway. This may be a relatively cheap way to justify the expensive SLS development. The hab module shouldn’t be all that expensive, relatively speaking. It would be similar to ISS modules. And we’ve been working on CLLSS for a long time. The technology to pull off this mission isn’t that far off, but certainly there is a lot of development required. At this early stage, however, making a believable cost-benefits trade study is difficult.

Are there better ways to spend what little money NASA has at their disposal? Wouldn’t investing in a large lunar lander be a more logical next step? That would require a long term strategy for human planetary exploration, which we still don’t have. But remember, the benefits of this proposal are not primarily driven by logic. If it encourages some political commitment to a long term space program, is that really so bad?

More Space Policy Battles Heating Up in Washington

Commentary by Michael Mackowski, 6/21/13

This week (6/19/13) a US House of Representatives appropriations committee that authorizes NASA’s budget issued a draft bill that forbids NASA from pursuing any asteroid retrieval mission and instead, directs them to lay out a roadmap for building bases on the Moon and Mars. Overall, there was a significant budget reduction and no new funds were authorized for these new missions. There was also a lot of budget shuffling, with some funds moved from Earth observing to planetary missions, and a bit put back into the Commercial Crew program.

The House committee thinks the asteroid mission is a “costly distraction” from the main goal of “sustained human presence” on the Moon and Mars.  NASA administrator Charles Bolden has said that a lunar prerequisite is actually the distraction to getting to Mars. The asteroid mission was proposed as an intermediate step beyond where we are now and something that could be done on a limited budget (shorter duration than a Mars mission and no expensive lander required). So once again, there are too many cooks in this kitchen. NASA, Congress, the Administration, industry, and the science community all have different agendas and this just looks like so much more disagreement on a clear plan forward. Everyone wants to be in charge.

This latest development is disappointing in that it is another unfunded mandate for NASA and an attempt by Congress to make scientific and engineering decisions.  They should let NASA figure out the best route to exploring the solar system, and leave technical decisions to engineers. Pundits do not expect this version of the NASA appropriations bill to make it through the Senate, so expect more battles in Washington as the summer heats up.

Catching Up

After a very long absence, Epic Future Space is back with updates about SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, Bigelow Aerospace, NASA, and Virgin Galactic. It’s been an amazing past couple of months in space.

For more Information about the stories I talked about click the following:
SpaceX CRS-1 Mission: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SpaceX_C…
SpaceX CRS-2 Mission: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SpaceX_C…
SpaceX’s Grasshopper: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grasshop…
Orbital Sciences Antares Flight: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antares_…
Bigelow Aerospace’s BEAM Module: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bigelow_…
Virgin Galactic first powered test flight: http://www.virgingalactic.com/news/it…

If you’d like to hear Orbital Transit: http://www.reverbnation.com/orbitaltr…
And check out Audio Martyr: http://www.reverbnation.com/audiomartyr

Another gem from Epic Future Space. Thanks Mikhail

Orbital Sciences Launches a New Rocket

ImageUp until now the word Antares has had only one meaning in our language, the given name of a star, but not anymore.  Sure, it is still the name of a giant red binary star, the brightest in the constellation Scorpio, about 424 light-years from Earth. The word Antares has its roots in ancient Greek meaning simulating Mars.  It looked red to them, just like Mars.

However, things change.  On Sunday, April 21, from a beach on Wallops Island Virginia, our own Orbital Sciences launched its newest horse in its extensive stable of rockets, the Antares. And for the first time in my memory, a first launch of a new rocket didn’t end prematurely in a puff of smoke or debris cloud. It went so smoothly that almost no one heard about it. That’s success in the rocket industry but a marketing failure.

Continue reading

ESA to Supply ATV for Use as Orion Service Module

ATV / Orion
European Space Agency ATV as Orion Service Module
Image Credit:

The European Space Agency (ESA) has reached an agreement with NASA to build a Service Module for the Orion spacecraft based on their Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), which has been a workhorse in the resupply of the International Space Station (ISS) since 2008.

Sol 150 – Curiosity uses Brush Tool

Curiosity Brush
Curiosity Brush Use Cleans Rock Surface on Mars
Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS

On Sol 150, the Mars Science Laboratory (Curiosity) used its Dust Removal Tool (DRT) to clean the surface of the rock target called “Ekwir_1.”

The image was captured by Curiosity’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI).

The DRT is a motorized wire-bristle brush on the turret at the end of the rover’s arm.

Curiosity – Sol 130

By the middle of December, Curiosity had reached the Glenelg region of Gale Crater and descended into the Yellowknife Bay depression. Curiosity is now exploring for the first target rock for it’s hammering drill.

After leaving Bradbury Landing, Curiosity spent extensive time at Rocknest (Sols 55-100), and followed this with investigations around Point Lake (Sols 102-124).

Curiosity Map
Map of Curiosity’s Travels During the first 130 Sols
Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / University of Arizona

Flight Events – International Space Station 2013

Here is the current calendar of flight events for 2013 for International Space Station as listed on the Forum at NASASpaceFlight on 21 November 2012:

2013

  • Complete
  • Upcoming
  • January 17 – ISS orbit’s reboost by Progress M-17M engines
  • February 6 – ISS orbit’s reboost by Progress M-17M engines
  • February 10 – Progress M-16M undocking (from Pirs)
  • February 11 – Progress M-18M launch
  • February 11 – Progress M-18M docking (to Pirs)
  • March 1 – Dragon (SpX-2) launch
  • March 3 – Dragon (SpX-2) capture and berthing (to Harmony nadir) by SSRMS
  • March 15 – Soyuz TMA-06M undocking (from Poisk) and landing [Novitskiy, Tarelkin, Ford]
  • March 28 – Soyuz TMA-08M launch [Vinogradov, Misurkin, Cassidy] and docking (to Poisk)
  • April 2 – Dragon (SpX-2) unberthing (from Harmony nadir) and releasing by SSRMS
  • April – spacewalk (ISS Russian EVA-32) from Pirs airlock [Vinogradov, Romanenko]
  • April 15 – Progress M-17M undocking (from Zvezda)
  • April 18 – ATV-4 “Albert Einstein” launch
  • April 23 – Progress M-18M undocking (from Pirs)
  • April 24 – Progress M-19M launch
  • April 26 – Progress M-19M docking (to Pirs)
  • May 1 – ATV-4 “Albert Einstein” docking (to Zvezda)
  • May 14 – Soyuz TMA-07M undocking (from Rassvet) and landing [Romanenko, Hadfield, Marshburn]
  • May 28 – Soyuz TMA-09M launch [Yurchikhin, Parmitano, Nyberg]
  • May 30 – Soyuz TMA-09M docking (to Rassvet)
  • June – spacewalk (ISS Russian EVA-33) from Pirs airlock [Yurchikhin, Misurkin]
  • July 23 – Progress M-19M undocking (from Pirs)
  • July 24 – Progress M-20M launch
  • July 26 – Progress M-20M docking (to Pirs)
  • August 4 – HTV-4 “Kounotori-4” launch
  • August 9 – HTV-4 “Kounotori-4” capture and berthing (to Harmony nadir) by SSRMS
  • August – spacewalk (ISS Russian EVA-34) from Pirs airlock [Yurchikhin, Misurkin]
  • August – spacewalk (ISS Russian EVA-35) from Pirs airlock [Yurchikhin, Misurkin]
  • September 6 – HTV-4 “Kounotori-4” unberthing (from Harmony nadir) and release by SSRMS
  • September 11 – Soyuz TMA-08M undocking (from Poisk) and landing [Vinogradov, Misurkin, Cassidy]
  • September 25 – Soyuz TMA-10M launch [Kotov, Ryazanskiy, Hopkins] and docking (to Poisk)
  • October – spacewalk (ISS Russian EVA-36) from Pirs airlock [Yurchikhin, Ryazanskiy]
  • October 15 – ATV-4 “Albert Einstein” undocking (from Zvezda)
  • October 16 – Progress M-21M launch
  • October 18 – Progress M-21M docking (to Zvezda)
  • November 10 – Soyuz TMA-09M undocking (from Rassvet) and landing [Yurchikhin, Parmitano, Nyberg]
  • November 25 – Soyuz TMA-11M launch [Tyurin, Wakata, Mastracchio]
  • November 27 – Soyuz TMA-11M docking (to Rassvet)
  • December – spacewalk (ISS Russian EVA-37) from Pirs airlock [Tyurin, Ryazanskiy]
  • December 11 (TBD) – MLM launch (or 2014)
  • December 18 – Progress M-20M with Pirs module undocking (from Zvezda nadir)
  • December 20 (TBD) – MLM docking (to Zvezda nadir) (or 2014)

2014

  • January – spacewalk (ISS Russian EVA-38) from Poisk airlock [Tyurin, Ryazanskiy]
  • January – spacewalk (ISS Russian EVA-39) from Poisk airlock [Tyurin, Ryazanskiy]
  • January – spacewalk (ISS U.S. EVA-21) from Quest airlock
  • January – spacewalk (ISS U.S. EVA-22) from Quest airlock
  • February 5 – Progress M-22M launch
  • February 7 – Progress M-22M docking (to MLM nadir)
  • March 12 – Soyuz TMA-10M undocking (from Poisk) and landing [Kotov, Ryazanskiy, Hopkins]
  • March 25 – Progress M-22M undocking (from MLM nadir)
  • March 26 – Soyuz TMA-12M launch [Skvortsov, Artemyev, Swanson]
  • March 28 – Soyuz TMA-12M docking (to MLM nadir)

Updated 1 January 2013


Flight Events 2012

NASA’s GRAIL Lunar Impact Site Named for Astronaut Sally Ride

PASADENA, Calif. — NASA has named the site where twin agency spacecraft impacted the moon Monday in honor of the late astronaut, Sally K. Ride , who was America’s first woman in space and a member of the probes’ mission team.

Last Friday, Ebb and Flow, the two spacecraft comprising NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) mission, were commanded to descend into a lower orbit that would result in an impact Monday on a mountain near the moon’s north pole. The formation-flying duo hit the lunar surface as planned at 2:28:51 p.m. PST (5:28:51 p.m. EST) and 2:29:21 p.m. PST (5:29:21 p.m. EST) at a speed of 3,760 mph (1.7 kilometers per second). The location of the Sally K. Ride Impact Site is on the southern face of an approximately 1.5 mile- (2.5 -kilometer) tall mountain near a crater named Goldschmidt.

“Sally was all about getting the job done, whether it be in exploring space, inspiring the next generation, or helping make the GRAIL mission the resounding success it is today,” said GRAIL principal investigator Maria Zuber of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. “As we complete our lunar mission, we are proud we can honor Sally Ride’s contributions by naming this corner of the moon after her.”

The impact marked a successful end to the GRAIL mission, which was NASA’s first planetary mission to carry cameras fully dedicated to education and public outreach. Ride, who died in July after a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer, led GRAIL’s MoonKAM (Moon Knowledge Acquired by Middle School Students) Program through her company, Sally Ride Science, in San Diego.

Along with its primary science instrument, each spacecraft carried a MoonKAM camera that took more than 115,000 total images of the lunar surface. Imaging targets were proposed by middle school students from across the country and the resulting images returned for them to study. The names of the spacecraft were selected by Ride and the mission team from student submissions in a nationwide contest.

“Sally Ride worked tirelessly throughout her life to remind all of us, especially girls, to keep questioning and learning,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland. “Today her passion for making students part of NASA’s science is honored by naming the impact site for her.”

Fifty minutes prior to impact, the spacecraft fired their engines until the propellant was depleted. The maneuver was designed to determine precisely the amount of fuel remaining in the tanks. This will help NASA engineers validate computer models to improve predictions of fuel needs for future missions.

“Ebb fired its engines for 4 minutes, 3 seconds and Flow fired its for 5 minutes, 7 seconds,” said GRAIL project manager David Lehman of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. “It was one final important set of data from a mission that was filled with great science and engineering data.”

The mission team deduced that much of the material aboard each spacecraft was broken up in the energy released during the impacts. Most of what remained probably is buried in shallow craters. The craters’ size may be determined when NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter returns images of the area in several weeks.

Launched in September 2011, Ebb and Flow had been orbiting the moon since Jan. 1, 2012. The probes intentionally were sent into the lunar surface because they did not have sufficient altitude or fuel to continue science operations. Their successful prime and extended science missions generated the highest resolution gravity field map of any celestial body. The map will provide a better understanding of how Earth and other rocky planets in the solar system formed and
evolved.

“We will miss our lunar twins, but the scientists tell me it will take years to analyze all the great data they got, and that is why we came to the moon in the first place,” Lehman said. “So long, Ebb and Flow, and we thank you.”

JPL manages the GRAIL mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. GRAIL is part of the Discovery Program managed at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver built the spacecraft.

For more information about GRAIL, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/grail

Asteroid Toutatis Tumbles Past Earth

Toutatis
Radar Image of Asteroid Toutatis on 12 December 2012
Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

The asteroid Toutatis passed 18 lunar distances (6.9 million kilometers) away from the Earth on 12 and 13 December 2012. NASA has released a movie based on a series of radar images taken by the Deep Space Network antenna at Goldstone, California.

Toutatis is an elongated asteroid with a maximum length of about 4.8 kilometers. It tumbles slowly, once every 5.4 days, and precesses like a badly thrown football around the long axis every 7.4 days.

Currently, its orbit will bring it back to the Earth’s neighborhood in 2069 and it will pass by at a distance of about 3 million kilometers.

Tracking Toutatis is the job of Near-Earth Object Observations Program. The program discovers and tracks asteroids and comets and plots their orbits to determine if any could be potentially hazardous to our planet.